As riots, rebellion and conflict spread across Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Tunisia, the calm at the edge of the Arab world appears to be Morocco.
On a recent summer evening I saw perhaps 50,000 people thronging through Marrakech’s famous plaza, Jemaa el-Fnaa, to buy their children orange juice, eat snails, see the snake charmers, watch belly dancers, listen to poets and hear Berber tribal musicians from the Atlas Mountains.
Not a single police uniform or weapon was visible in the roiling chaos.
Next day I asked a driver: “How does Morocco avoid the turmoil of Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya?” He paused for a long moment. Then he said to me: “because we love our country.”
Morocco escaped the turmoil and violence sweeping the Arab world in part by not following American advice. When the U.S. democracy advocates President Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton told Arab leaders they should rule with the consent of their people, it sparked discontent, unrest and challenges to authority. Now a reaction to these challenges has set in and it is “SiSi time” in the Arab world: a return to strongmen like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and a controlled press and heavy-handed justice.
Morocco, however, threw some bones to the democracy movement but never let it gain power. The country at Africa’s northwestern tip, facing Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar, simply went on with its absolute monarchy.
Yes – this is one place where the monarch is not constrained by a troublesome free press or vigorous opposition parties or troublesome sit-ins in public squares.
For example, I picked up a newspaper and found that photos of King Mohammed VI were splashed several times on almost every page. The king is actively involved in developing major infrastructure, education, trade, manufacturing and other projects.
“L'economie, c'est lui, 1 / 8the economy is him 3 / 8” said the Paris-based newsmagazine Jeune Afrique in June. “From the high speed train from Tangier to Casablanca, to renewable energy, Mohammed VI is at the initiative of all grand projects.”
He’s putting people to work building superhighways and high-speed trains and has created a major deep water port east of Tangier just across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco’s natural market: Europe.
The king succeeded his father Hassan II in 1999 and has avoided the unrest in Egypt and other countries where tourists now fear to tread.
After a large and unprecedented march in 2011 by Moroccans seeking change, and in the wake of 2003 Islamist bombings of Jewish and Western centers in Casablanca, the king has co-opted the space in which discontent and religious ideology take root across the Arab world.
For example, an official at the Moroccan Embassy in Washington told me recently that every Friday – the day when radical preachers whip up worshippers to street violence in troubled countries – only one sermon is shown in all 50,000 mosques in Morocco. It is broadcast on television and vetted by government officials to teach obedience, moderation, tolerance and unity.
On July 1, the royal government went one step further and issued a decree that bars religious leaders, imams and preachers from any political activities “to equip imams and preachers to combat fundamentalist ideas and preserve the tolerant nature of Islam.”
Neighboring countries such as Mali and Niger, worried about the spread of jihadi teachings, have begun sending their imams to Morocco to be taught how to preach moderation and undermine extremism.
Yet Morocco remains a controlled society. The king rules through a hidden network of businessmen, the media and the elite, said a Moroccan academic in the United States who asked not to be identified.
“Many common folk say that the king does his best but he is surrounded by people who won’t let him change things,” he said.
The controlled television always shows the king as hard-working. In addition the TV stresses the chaos from Tunis to Cairo. People feel there is no alternative, said the academic.
But the elements for trouble remain – most people are poor and have poor quality education that does not equip them to take part in the new industrial growth.
Morocco now exports sturdy Dacia cars to Europe. Moroccan workers also produce airplane wiring systems for Boeing. Some say Morocco is to Europe as Mexico is to the United States: a supplier of agricultural produce that is transforming into an offshore manufacturing partner.
But corruption is rampant, and discontent is muted but widespread.
To defuse the demands of the 2011 march for change, and long-term simmering support for Islamist extremism, the king allowed a rewriting of the constitution and held elections in which a moderate Islamist party – the Party for Justice and Development – won control of parliament.
But the parliament has limited power. The king played a clever hand – allowing the appearance of change while keeping tight control over real power.
“One step forward and two steps back” was how the Moroccan academic described things.
Fundamentally, Morocco shares the fate of Egypt and other Arab dictatorships and monarchies – there is a “deep state” formed by the elite, business, the army, mediaand clergy which benefits from the power system.
But it remains an Arab country where when you say you are American, people smile broadly and offer a hearty “welcome.”
Some say this dates back to the arrival of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s army in 1943, liberating Morocco from Vichy French and Nazi control. I was often told by Moroccans that the farm boys from America’s Midwest who came ashore were honest and open with the locals – something that European colonial occupants had never been.
And further back, when France took over Morocco in 1912, it established a protectorate and ruled through local sheikhs and caids.Moroccans had always seen their own people in positions of authority creating that sense of pride the driver noted above.
Some visitors to Morocco complain about aggressive hustlers in the markets of Tangier and Marrakech. But for now that may be the worst that Morocco has to cope with. It’s a far cry from the thunder and fire of the Arab Spring simmering beyond its Eastern frontiers.
Ben Barber has covered the Middle East for 30 years for the Baltimore Sun, London Observer, Toronto Globe and Mail and other publications. His photojournalism book “GROUNDTRUTH: Work, Play and Conflict in the Third World,”is being published this summer.